Dr Soberstone, I presume
Three years after his last title match in London, the world chess champion, Magnus Carlsen, is defending his crown for the fourth time in Dubai. He will turn 31 at the end of the month, on the day of the fourth of fourteen scheduled match games. He has been world number one continuously since his late teens.
His challenger is Ian Nepomniachtchi, currently ranked fifth in the world. They are the same age and have been playing each other for nearly twenty years. Nepomniachtchi won twice in youth tournaments before both became grandmasters and in their thirteen classical encounters Carlsen has won only once. But the last of Nepomniachtchi’s four victories was in 2017, when Carlsen was said to have been suffering with a cold.
Carlsen is the heavy favourite now: the rating difference between the two indicates an early finish, with Carlsen gaining the requisite 7.5 points before the last game. But there are reasons to think Nepomniachtchi has better chances than the one in five odds implied by the the statistics. He goes into the match knowing he can compete with Carlsen at all forms of the game and has been getting in shape, apparently shedding ten kilos at his training camp.
‘Nepo’ dedicated himself to chess relatively late, becoming a grandmaster at the age of 17 (three years after Carlsen) and graduating from university, which is rare among top class professional players, whose institutional education typically ends some time in their early to mid teens.
In his early twenties he spent ten hours a day playing Defence of the Ancients on his computer and was good enough to find the choice between esports and chess less than straightforward. Had he had to make the decision more recently, he might have plumped for the video game. He fights Carlsen for a share of $2 million; a Russian DotA team recently won $18 million.
Another factor in Nepomniachtchi’s favour is Carlsen’s expressed dislike for the world title format. The games in Dubai will be played at a classical time limit. Each player is allowed two hours to make their first forty moves and another hour for the next twenty, with a further allocation if games go on beyond that. Carlsen believes the future of chess lies in shorter, faster play, which better suits the entertainment opportunities opened up by online streaming. He has spent the last eighteen months getting a rapid play grand prix off the ground, in which players are allocated fifteen to twenty minutes for a whole game, and get through entire best-of-four matches in the time they’d spend playing a single game for the world title.
Computer-assisted preparation makes it ‘harder and harder’, Carlsen says, to demonstrate the superiority of his intuition and strategic thinking in classical games. Players with good memories, decent calculation and solid technique can use the latest AI discoveries to boost their chances against him. Nepomniachtchi has stellar technique, calculates excellently and is backed by a well-sponsored team that proved itself against Carlsen in 2016, when he drew with Nepomniachtchi’s compatriot Sergei Karjakin over twelve classical games in New York.
At the opening ceremony in Dubai on Wednesday, Carlsen burst a balloon to reveal a shower of black confetti. This twist on the traditional draw for colours means that Nepomniachtchi starts with white pieces.
The first three games are played back-to-back – today, tomorrow and Sunday – so the challenger will get a second game with white pieces before the first rest day on Monday. He will look for an early advantage. Tradition has it that the first few games of a title match are cagey affairs, with the players sounding one another out, but Nepomniachtchi likes to take the initiative and will probably go in hard in the hope of upsetting his opponent, who is notoriously tough on himself.
Carlsen’s father and sister have commented on the ‘not very humane’ conditions under which these matches are played and the pressure Carlsen places himself under during the three-week contests. Nepomniachtchi’s team will have shown him this footage.
The reigning champion’s problem isn’t nerves: he convincingly won the rapid tiebreaks in his 2016 and 2018 matches. It’s frustration. He has said his advantage over his opponent is that ‘I am better at chess,’ but he doesn’t believe the world championship – still the most prestigious title in the game – offers the format in which he can best demonstrate his superiority. Carlsen has been spending his idle moments in the lead-up to Dubai playing bullet and blitz games online. With only one to three minutes for all moves,Carlsen has laid down unprecedented performances on the lichess platform, where he plays under the name Dr Nykterstein.
Nepomniachtchi, a more aggressive player than the two previous world title contenders, will aim to get under the skin of ‘Dr Soberstone’. I expect a hit-and-run style from Carlsen, switching defences to slip his opponent’s preparation. But he will also be tempted to avoid a cold style of play, to reinforce his credentials as the best player of all time. Nepomniachtchi’s chances lie in exploiting these conflicting motivations.
Meanwhile, off stage, the eighteen-year-old Alireza Firouzja, who was too young for the previous qualifying cycle, has moved to number two in the rankings and has already made it to the tournament that will decide the next challenger. The prospect of a Carlsen-Firouzja face-off in late 2022 or early 2023 overshadows this match and is likely to keep Carlsen coming back for more.